Gerry Adams profile: The 'articulate and persuasive' linchpin of the Irish republican movement

Ireland correspondent

One of the many books on Gerry Adams is subtitled Man of War, Man of Peace? As that question mark indicates, there is no definitive judgement as to which of those labels more appropriately applies to the Sinn Fein president.

He certainly comes from a militant Belfast republican background, and specifically from a family steeped in traditional "armed struggle". Both his father and mother were what might be described as members of a west Belfast republican aristocracy, a small cluster of families who kept the faith down through the generations.

Adams once outlined something of his family history. The British army, he said, had shot dead his brother-in-law and shot and seriously injured his brother. A cousin, arrested in a hijacked van with weapons and a bomb, had been jailed for 25 years. "Most of my immediate family have been in prison," he summed up.

He himself served a sentence behind bars and was twice interned without trial in the Maze prison, which used to be called the IRA's university. There he emerged as one of the most formidable debaters among republican inmates.

He impressed not only his imprisoned colleagues but also British officials. A revealing insight into Adams in his early 20s was provided by senior civil servant Frank Steele, who recalled meeting the young republican when he was ferried from the internment camp to Chelsea by the RAF for secret talks.

According to Steele: "I'd been briefed that although Adams was a young man he was a senior member of the Belfast battalion [of the IRA] and that battalion had been murdering and shooting and bombing.

"Therefore I expected - putting it frankly - an aggressive streetwise young tough. I was therefore pleasantly surprised when instead a very personable, likeable, intelligent, articulate and persuasive young man appeared."

Steele recounted asking Adams whether he wanted to spend his life "on the run from us British". Adams said he'd like to go to university. When Steele asked him why he didn't, Adams replied: "Well, I've got to help to get you British out first."

Jean McConville, here with three of her 10 children, was abducted and killed by the IRA in 1972 Jean McConville, here with three of her 10 children, was abducted and killed by the IRA in 1972 (PA)
For many years afterwards Adams stuck to the old classical republican simplicities, centring on the belief that the Troubles would end when the IRA defeated Britain.

In fact, during the 1980s he and a hardline faction which included Martin McGuinness staged a bloodless coup to overthrow an older leadership which, they argued, was not militant enough.

The years that followed saw a stepping up of republican violence and a tougher and more ruthless conflict as the young hawks pursued their aim of driving the army out of Northern Ireland. Those were dangerous days: Adams was seriously injured in an ambush by loyalists, who wounded him three times.

The IRA was reorganised and tightened up while Sinn Fein was developed as its significant political adjunct. Adams won a Westminister seat as the party demonstrated it could regularly win more than a third of the nationalist vote in Northern Ireland.

For a quarter of a century he has been a key figure in the republican movement, and for much of that time its most important personality. An IRA associate once said of him: "He's the best there is. He's terrific at meetings - the rest of us can be flapping around and he just stays cool and calculating."

Part of his stance was a refusal not to condemn or disavow the IRA. But other facets of his personality featured pragmatism and flexibility, together with a taste for dialogue and on openness to innovation. Sometimes visible in military tactics, it was also evident in his readiness for developing a web of clandestine contacts with the authorities in London and Dublin.

Such contacts proceeded at a glacial pace, lasting for years, but eventually they developed to the point where Adams and company decided they could advance their cause more efficiently by displacing the IRA with Sinn Fein.

Gerry Adams (right) in the guard of honour at the funeral of an IRA member in 1973 Gerry Adams (right) in the guard of honour at the funeral of an IRA member in 1973 (PA)
It took years, but eventually the republican grassroots came to accept the idea that IRA violence had run its course. In its place came a steadily expanding Sinn Fein which is now Northern Ireland's second largest party, providing the deputy prime minister.

It has also grown significantly south of the border in the Irish Republic, where its ambition is to get into government within the next decade or so. The jackpot for Sinn Fein would be to have ministers on both sides of the border.

Some of the more conventional parties privately admit that it has attracted a number of impressive younger members, including a couple of possible future party leaders. This means a Sinn Fein without Adams is no longer unthinkable.

The McConville arrest is not the only hit which Adams has suffered over the past year, for there have been other potentially damaging episodes.

When his brother was last year given a 16-year sentence for raping his daughter 30 years earlier, Adams said that when he became aware of the abuse, years afterwards, he had confronted his brother and warned the family. But he came under attack from critics who said he should have alerted police years before he did.

Yet the striking thing is that so far none of these episodes have brought about any faltering in Sinn Fein's apparently inexorable political rise. In the south that rise has been fuelled not so much by any strong nationalist fervour as by the party's skill in voicing the resentments of those hardest hit by the ongoing recession, and by its challenges to the prevailing politics of austerity.

Voters are aware that the IRA killed Jean McConville and almost 2,000 others during the Troubles, but seem to have concluded that Adams and his movement are due political credit for eventually abandoning their lengthy and lethal war and opting for politics.

Few if any voters believe that during his lengthy career he was always exclusively a man of peace; but the voting figures show that many no longer view him as a man of war.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
Frank Turner performing at 93 Feet East
musicReview: 93 Feet East, London
News
Toronto tops the charts across a range of indexes
news

World cities ranked in terms of safety, food security and 'liveability'

Extras
indybest
Voices
A mother and her child
voices
Voices
The veterans Mark Hayward, Hugh Thompson and Sean Staines (back) with Grayson Perry (front left) and Evgeny Lebedev
charity appealMaverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
2015 General Election
May2015

Poll of Polls

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Assistant

£19000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a friendly, confident i...

Tradewind Recruitment: Primary Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: At Tradewind Recruitment we are currently l...

Tradewind Recruitment: Physics Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: Tradewind Recruitment is currently working ...

Recruitment Genius: Case Manager - Occupational Therapist / Physiotherapist

£28000 - £34000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee